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  • War and Conflict in the Early Modern World: 1500–1700 by Brian Sandberg
  • Stephen Morillo
War and Conflict in the Early Modern World: 1500–1700 by, Brian Sandberg. Malden, Polity Press, 2016. 304 pp. $69.95 US (cloth), $28.95 US (paper), $23.99 US (e-book).

Sandberg (Northern Illinois) contributes a book to the vast historiography of military history in the period 1500–1800 that aims to be global in perspective and broad in its conception of types of warfare and violence. These are noble aims, and Sandberg certainly delivers a lot of narrative about various conflicts during the period. Unfortunately, the information contained therein is at best undigested. As a result, the book makes little contribution to the field.

The first of a set of problems that characterize the book is that it has no consistent thesis. He promises an argument that "overlapping processes transformed the nature of war and conflict in the early modern world" (4). Partly because of Sandberg's emphasis on varieties of conflict, no such global transformation is visible by the end of the book. Indeed, his own conclusion states, "This book has argued that warfare became increasingly globalized from 1500 to 1700" (305), which is simply to state that war was part of a broader human history of globalization in this age, which is obvious, and says nothing about how "overlapping processes" created change.

Unclear and inconsistent conclusions flow in part from a lack of a coherent framework of analysis. Sandberg explains in the Introduction that he draws on five theoretical approaches in order to encompass the variety of warfare he covers: the "Military Revolution"; "encounters"; New Imperial Histories; "connected histories"; and "state development." But [End Page 588] he does not explain how these fit together, and in practice his principle for applying a theory seems to be "whatever fits this case best." (Comparative history is, for this reviewer, notably lacking.) No underlying model unifies them or provides a theory of the interactions of states, societies, cultures, and warfare. Sandberg does not even take advantage of those that might. He notes Charles Tilly, for example, in the state development section, but merely by citing his by-now hackneyed aphorism "states made war and war made states." Later on the same page Sandberg complains that "theorists of state development have rarely analyzed" the variety of states in this period "since they do not fit well with their definitions and models" (both quotes on 15). Yet this variety is exactly what Tilly's model attempts to account for. Perhaps it helps to understand the models?

Furthermore, three or arguably four of these approaches are Eurocentric at least in practice if not inherently (including Tilly's), as Sandberg's exposition of them unintentionally makes clear. Their combination thus totally undermines Sandberg's attempt to avoid Eurocentrism. This is clearest in, and compounded by, Sandberg's organization of the book's chapters. Each chapter covers a "type" of war, from "Innovative Warfare, 1450s–1520s" to "Territorial War, 1660s–1700s," with overlapping date ranges that are supposed to undermine a single narrative. Yet the types of conflict named and their chronological sequence follow a standard European story that fits badly on larger global and comparative developments. Each chapter begins with a paradigmatic example of the type of conflict covered; the majority of these are European, and those that are not often feel shoehorned into the European mold.

Finally, Sandberg has problems with the concept of "the early modern world." He claims that the book "utilizes the notion of an early modern period" (18), but neither defines what this means nor actually utilizes it. His description in the conclusion of a world still run by monarchies of various types and engaging in patterns of warfare familiar to all participants in terms stretching back well before 1500 (though he does not seem to recognize the antecedents as such) speaks more to a mature "late agrarian" world than to a world "modernizing" in any recognizable way. His decision to end the study at 1700 certainly cuts from view even the earliest beginnings of industrialization, the true cause of "modernization," never mind the most important transformations of late agrarian warfare...


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pp. 588-589
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